Monday, 8 December 2014

Local newspapers and the internet - where did it all go wrong?

April 1985: The  South Bucks Star goes live on the internet. It was the dawn of an age that offered so much for local newspapers - but in the end has delivered very little of worth

I REMEMBER the excitement of the internet arriving in our lives, way back in 1994. The biggest technological development since Johannes Gutenberg tripped over a wine press and said 'Oh, that gives me an idea'. The internet promised (and delivered) publishing instantly, in full colour, around the world, for just a few pence. It was to herald a new age in publishing. So where did it all go wrong?

I look at the clunky, cluttered and chaotic websites of almost every local paper on the web and I just get depressed.  I recall the vision of 20 years ago and then see what we ended up with. The dream was smart design, instant news, links to background stories and other websites, moving pictures, interactivity... But take a look at any local newspaper website today and I suspect you will share my disappointment. 

First, you must work out what on earth the website is all about. Almost none of them say 'We are a (local newspaper) website publishing news and information about Seahaven'. And if they do, they don't tell you where Seahaven is or even which country it is in. Then you must fight your way past the flashing in-your-face ads (only advertising, it seems, has taken up the opportunity of moving images) and chaotic design to find out what you need. Even in 1984, early web designers were telling editors good navigation was vital. Why did no one listen? And why aren't they listening now?

When you get to the story you want, the disappointment is palpable. The story (and all the others on the same page) was published a few minutes ago but it relates to an event that took place a week ago. What happened to 'instant news'? There is only one static picture but it's tiny. I want to click on it and order a print but I can't.

There are no hyperlinks in the story. Was Tim Berners-Lee's work all for nothing? I want to click on the name Truman Burbank and access a quick biography - but I can't. And I want to click on the venue for a map - but again I can't.  I can only comment on a handful of stories and I need to register to do it. I'm amazed at how many papers still don't hyperlink the reporter's byline with their email address. Surely, that's a basic first step for publishing news on the web? Even when a story is uploaded with a web address, few bother to hyperlink it.

"Oh we don't want to link to other websites," say the publishers. "We might lose our readers". Too late. This short-sighted suicidal strategy shows you just don't get it. And we readers are long gone.

It's clear local papers are still publishing papers the way they have always done. The fact it's on a website makes little difference. It's like being show the discovery of television and then just sitting in front of a TV camera slowly turning the pages of a newspaper. If you think I'm exaggerating, find out how many "e-newspapers" are just pdfs of the print edition.

And don't get me started on those online stories that end... "Read the full story in this week's Seahaven Times." Did no one tell you the internet is global? I can't buy the Seahaven Times in Cumbria. Give me a link to your digital edition at least.

The adverts are 10x2s which do little more than direct me to the advertiser's website. Dull, annoying and unimaginative. The only success story is the database-driven property, jobs and motors sections which allow you to specify the type of house, price, location etc. But if this is the advertising success story, where is editorial's shining example?

And as for easily navigating around the website, forget it. "Find me a bag of potatoes," said Bob James to editors as he threw their disorganised newspapers back at them. In 2014, I should be able to type 'bag of potatoes' in a box on the home page of any local paper website and be shown local sellers, a map of where they are and a one-click buy-now button. Visit your local paper website now and try the Bob James test. Try and find potatoes, what's on at the theatre tonight, how to place an advert, or a number of other items that should be easy to find.

I'm yet to come across a good local paper website (if you have found one, do let me know) but given the state of the nation, I doubt many of them will be around for much longer. Worse, I doubt many people will miss them.


  • Alan Cleaver has spent a career in regional and national papers. With Rob Whittlesea, he published the South Bucks Star on the web in April 1994 - one of the first weekly papers in the UK to go on the web. He now lives in Cumbria.